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Traumatized Puerto Ricans see uncertain, insecure future

It’s been nearly four months since Puerto Rico was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and the return to normalcy has been hindered by a painfully slow recovery. Jeffrey Brown talks to special correspondent Monica Villamizar for an update on how residents are coping amid rising crime rates, dwindling school enrollment and devastated infrastructure and natural resources.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next- an update from Puerto Rico.

    Nearly four months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in late September, as Jeffrey Brown explores, the return to anything like normal life for most residents has been agonizingly slow.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Official figures show that, of the island's 1.5 million customers, just 900,000 have had their power restored. Businesses continue to struggle and many schools remain closed.

    Special correspondent Monica Villamizar is in Puerto Rico with a NewsHour team looking at how people there are coping. She joins us from Caguas.

    And, Monica, first, just give us a sense of what it feels like there. What are people telling you about the impact on their lives? How easy is it to get around?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Well, Jeff, mobility has certainly improved in San Juan, the capital.

    But there are still many things that need to be fixed. So, there are snapped power lines. Eight out of 10 traffic lights are not working, so you can imagine what that does to traffic. It is pretty chaotic at times. And as soon as you leave the capital, then things are much worse and there is a lot of devastation still.

    There is debris near the roads. There's collapsed trees, collapsed buildings that have not been repaired and a lot of crops that will simply not grow back. So, for instance, in supermarkets and restaurants, there's no fruit. There is no plantains. There is a scarcity of goods still here in the island.

    And, you know, Puerto Ricans are trying to rebuild. They have been very resilient and dignified, but, frankly, they are a traumatized population at this point. Many times, we are interviewing people and they teared up, because it is kind of a secondary phase that they are living now, which is when things are starting to sink in.

    Many of them lost everything they had, everything they had worked for. And there is no clear, you know, horizon or future ahead of them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:


  • Monica Villamizar:

    Many say, we just simply don't know what to do.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One of the key issues there, I know, is security, including growing crime. What are you seeing and what kind of impact is that having on people?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    You are absolutely right.

    The numbers are worrying. They say 32 people have been murdered this year, so in about 10 days. And that's extremely high for Puerto Rico. Our sources are telling us that this is mostly drug-related, that there is some kind of turf war between drug gangs.

    These gangs were not active after the hurricane because they had to, you know, rebuild themselves and had all these situations going on in their families. And now crime is starting to pick up.

    But there is also a generalized feeling among the general public that there is insecurity. You know, streets are dark, for instance, because of the lack of power at night. The police are not there. There is less police presence because they are not being paid overtime. And they haven't been paid.

    So, they are less motivated to go to work. So it is kind of a chain of events that means that the security situation is deteriorating.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And I know that you are also looking at the situation for schools, the issue of how many schools are open, and also how many people, including students and teachers, have left the island. What impact is that having?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    That's having a very big impact.

    And I can tell you that the Federation of Teachers, who have very reliable statistics on this, are telling us that 23,000 students have already left to the mainland. They are saying as well that a number of teachers have left.

    Now, these teachers are very qualified. They are seeking jobs in Florida, New York, other places, so that means there is effectively a brain drain on the island. These people will not be replaced, and that is going to have an impact.

    And also the secretary of education, Julia Keleher, has said, you know what, some schools will just simply not reopen because there wasn't enough enrollment. You know, the classes are empty.

    So, there's been a real shift, or there will be a real shift in demographics in the island as people try to leave for the mainland to try to find a better future. And that's going to have an impact, not only on the education sector, but in other sectors as well.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Just briefly, you have mentioned several times the power lines, the impact on the security. So, power continues to be a problem there?

  • Monica Villamizar:

    A very big problem, indeed.

    And the director of PREPA, which is the electric authority, said maybe like 40 percent of people don't have power now, maybe they won't get it until May. So that means, Jeff, that they will be living off generators, for those who can afford the generators and the fuel, for eight months to have their things refrigerated, medicine, you know, refrigerated, and freezers.

    It has just changed their life completely. And more worryingly perhaps is that they are now realizing that these are all short-term fixes. The whole power system of Puerto Rico is very old. It was very poorly maintained. So maybe some things will have to be rebuilt from scratch. But that is a big problem, because the island is bankrupt and the power authority has no money either.

    So it is a very dire situation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, Monica, I know you and your team will have stories for us in the coming days.

    For now, Monica Villamizar, thanks very much.

  • Monica Villamizar:

    Thank you, Jeff.

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